Damascus Doctor Offers Doctors and Medical Students the Chance to Take Their Knowledge and Skills to the Great Outdoors

For almost 10 years, Dr. Ellen Smith has been offering wilderness medicine courses to anyone interested whether they have a medical degree, are seeking a medical degree or just often find themselves outside.

“There are a lot of educational gaps on how to handle stuff outside of the hospital,” Smith said. “You don’t have the equipment that a paramedic has, but you have the knowledge of a doctor.”

Smith estimates that she has taught her course, which she created utilizing her experience as an emergency medicine physician and sports medicine doctor, to more than 600 people ranging from doctors looking for continued medical education to Boy Scout leaders.

“This is one of the most interesting and fun branches of medicine because it involves hands on movement and a less didactic approach,” Smith said.

Recently Smith brought students from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and University of Maryland School of Medicine to a wooded area in Damascus to take the course.

“These students are in the first two or so years of medical school and are exploring all different types of medicine,” Smith said, explaining that experiencing it is the best way to decide what path to take. 

Smith’s curriculum has been approved by the American College
of Emergency Physicians as well as the American Medical Association and although
her regular course gives certifications of completion, the course she taught that weekend was geared toward introducing the students to the field rather than giving them any sort of credit.

“When I started med school I was very interested in wilderness medicine and VCU didn’t have an interest group or any sort of elective,” Smith’s rigorous curriculum delves into splinting frac- tures, fixing dislocations of small and large joints, the evacuation of injured patients, abdominal pain differential diagnosis, rescue knots and poisonous or edible plants, among many other points.

“It’s a completely different way to learn than what you are learning in med school and all the activities are very fun,” Smith said.

Sasser agreed, explaining that while the course is vigorous, it was definitely nice to get outside and experience something so different.

“Going to med school and being a resident is a huge inside activity. There’s so much to learn inside the hospital. That’s why you’re a resident, you just about live in the hospital,” Smith said, “You lose track of what happens outside.”